We arrive in Ouarzazate, Morocco several days before the race starts and immediately find ourselves trapped in a thick cloud of anxiety. There’s no doubt that you need the extra time before the race to adjust to the heat, pack and repack your gear, receive and act on advice from MDS veterans, and transition your mind from work life on another continent to stage racing life in the desert. The downside is that time seems to pass much too slowly and while it’s great to be making new friends, all the conversations add fuel to your recently-lit anxiety fire. The most discussed item during this time is calorie count. Never in your life will you hear so many people discussing the precise number of calories that they intend to carry and consume over the next 7 days.
“You see Jeff, I’m taking 17,280 calories in total. I’m starting with 2,118 calories on day 1, but 1,281 of those calories will come from my freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff dinner, which of course has the highest weight to calorie ratio. I’m also carrying progressively more Macadamia nuts per day — starting with 3 on day 1.”
These conversations send you back to your room to unpack all of your carefully-organized food bags and assess for hours on end the pros and cons of carrying a 177 calorie mini portion of beef jerky on day 3 and four chocolate covered espresso beans (totaling 63 calories) on day 5. In no time you discover that if you take some food out of its original packaging, you can save enough weight to add four more pretzels (28 calories) on Day 6. You view this as a huge achievement, thank goodness since it took an hour to make the decision and two hours to unpack and repack again!
Everyone seems to know their exact calorie count by day, the total for the week, and their backpack’s weight. You also hear endless stories about the heat two years ago, the sandstorm last year, and the guy who’s feet were so blistered in the race three years ago that they had to amputate his toes forcing him to crawl the final 90 miles of the race, where he got blisters on his kneecaps before being forced to slide on his stomach the final 20 miles. “Oh, you should have seen his stomach blisters – a dreadful sight. They had to airlift him from the Finish Line to a British Aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean where specialists saved his life — I think he’s doing the race again this year though, but he has artificial toes and kneecaps and the only way he can eat now is through a straw.”
Ok, perhaps a slight exaggeration, but that’s how the stories come across, leaving you to return to your room, unpack and repack, toss out a tiny bag of crushed potato chips (114 calories), 3 of the extra pretzels you added a few hours ago (21 calories), and cut a few more bristles off of your toothbrush to save weight. “I don’t want to end up like crawling, stomach-blister guy — forget that, I’m throwing out two Bandaids and cutting a zipper off of my backpack as well. I’ll keep the tape though — just in case I need to use it to prevent a bad case of belly blisters.”
“Hurry up and wait” becomes your new mantra starting with the day of departure from Ouarzazate for the desert. We are instructed to meet outside of our hotel at 9:00 — the buses finally arrive at 9:30. We board them and proceed to spend two hours parked in front of the hotel. Calorie count and foot taping discussions are soon replaced by quietness as the race organizers distribute the official “Road Book”. The race course has been secret until this point – now we’re getting our first look at the distance and terrain per stage. It’s quiet for an hour as everyone ponders the book. “Day 1 looks tough — 8 miles of dunes!” “Huge climbs on the long day.” “How do you convert from kilometers to miles” “Aren’t these maps great — but ouch, look how many sections of dunes there are.”
The buses finally depart and we enjoy a 5-hour drive through the desert with a bonus nausea-inducing twisty drive over a mountain range. The mantra stuck in my head: “I just want to run. I just want to run.” I feel like a dog seeing his master get out the leash and pull on some running shoes only to get distracted by a phone call. The waiting and pre-race anxiety drives me crazy – I’m scratching at the door. The buses finally depart the highway and surprisingly drive off-road a few kilometers to the site of Bivouac 1. The song “Highway to Hell” suddenly appears in my mind. This is the moment where you have your first sense of the expedition nature of the MDS. The Bivouac is much larger than I expect and is situated within sight of an enormous section of sand dunes — which we later learn represent the first part of Stage 1.
The competitors sleep in black tents, 100 of which are arranged in a giant three-tent deep oval. The staff tents are all large, white (and for all we know stocked with a full bar and jacuzzi). In between the collection of athlete and staff tents is a series of very large tents housing the medical clinic, telecommunications center, and other logistics centers. To the side of the staff tents is a large area with Land Rovers, two helicopters, and various other race vehicles. There is also a huge inflatable dome tent (like a mini circus tent) housing pre-race food distribution. (We arrive in the desert Friday evening and have a day and half before food self-sufficiency starts.) The first order of business: receive your water rations for the evening. We queued in the center of the competitor tent area and felt a bit like refugees as we were handed water and our water ration cards were checked. With a mild sandstorm brewing, we enjoy a nice dinner, complete with fresh bread and wine (gotta love the way the French handle desert catering!). After a restless night of sleep on hard, rocky ground, we endure our last full day in the desert before the race starts. The main objective for T-Minus 1 Day is to make it through the administrative checks. At prescribed times we each arrive at a large tent, where we hand over our pre/post-race luggage and receive our race numbers, emergency flare, and salt tables. Each competitor also goes through two interviews — one for gear, the other for medical. The gear interview involves varying levels of scrutiny to ensure that you have mandatory items and the minimum of 2,000 calories per day. I am lucky to sail through this inspection with only a glance at my backpack and hardly a question. Others have their packs weighed and the contents inspected.
For the medical check, you hand over your mandatory ECG printout and medical clearance forms. A team of three medical personnel review your paperwork and walk you through a little Q&A to ensure that you are properly trained and have some sense of what you’re getting yourself into. Again, my interview is very brief. I name-drop that I was coaching by Lisa Smith-Batchen (who has won this race) and mention a couple things about my training — soon I was on my way out of the tent, cleared to race. This is actually a huge moment of relief – I worried for months that my paperwork would have an error or that my Swiss-performed ECG would be the wrong paperwork due to my poor German skills and would turn out to be a special holiday recipe for dark chocolate with a hint of Bailey’s or a deciphering code for Swiss bank accounts — either of which would have OK in hindsight!
We spend much of our afternoon with the media around — ABC News (U.S.) trekked out to the desert to follow the North Americans, so we do some interviews, watch our new friends being interviewed, and grab some team video and photos. We hear and answer the question “Why are you doing this?” so many times that our answers start to seem surreal — perfectly acceptable to us, but probably other-worldly to most viewers.
Our time together before the race starts represents the birth of many new friendships. Up to 8 people share the same open-air Berber tent for the week. It’s close quarters and you all see each other at what some would say your worst (dirty, extremely exhausted, under extreme physical and mental duress, under-nourished, dehydrated, sore, sick, injured, etc.), but at what I think is your best — your true self — with all your highs and lows right there on display. The highs are amazing and wonderful to share and the lows are raw, honest, and real. When testing your limits by racing and living through the harsh conditions of the desert, identifiers such as careers, titles, clothing, possessions, class, education, or prior accomplishments have little meaning. The desert is a great equalizer. Everyone learns a lot about themselves and each other in this setting — the compassion and selflessness is heart-warming and one of the best gifts of this event . We were extremely fortunate to have a great mix of guys and gals in our tent, Number 77. The bonding takes place quickly and we’re happy to have a strong coed team with shared respect for one another.
That evening, the sands began to blow with even more intensity (securing our desert initiation and ensuring that we are all very dirty before crossing the start line). I unpack and pack my backpack yet again, ditch a couple extra items, and cut off more parts of my pack that I figure aren’t that important. Dinner is nice, but my pre-race jitters want all the attention, so I hardly eat. We are all in our sleeping bags by 7:30, begging for this race to start.